Friday, May 28, 2010

Sometimes faster is indeed better

One of the important factors in a good user experience in a software product is performance (or, more accurately, the user’s perception of performance). That is, how responsive to user input does the product appear to be?

I’ve been thinking about performance since my switch from using Firefox to using Google Chrome as my primary web browser. Safari remains my secondary browser. I still use Firefox on occasion for a few specific tasks.

The first time that I used Chrome, I was struck by how much snappier it seemed to be compared with Firefox. There are probably more than a few technical factors that feed into that perception, along with important goals that the Chrome team set out to meet. As an aside, it’s well worth talking the time to read the comic book created by Scott McLeod in 2008 to explain Chrome.

Interestingly, once I had grown accustomed to my newly peppy browsing experience, I started to notice specific points of slowness. A big culprit was when the browser consulted a name server (part of the domain name system, or DNS) to find the location of a given web resource. I had always known that this was a bottleneck, but it really stood out now. DNS is typically handled by your internet service provider, but there are alternative DNS sources available. Hoping to address DNS slowness, I decided to try Google Public DNS, which launched late last year.

Lookups became far quicker to resolve — in all my browsers, not just Chrome — though slower sites are now more obvious than before, as resolving the domain name is dealt with right away (Twitter comes to mind in that regard).

I’m a big fan of Google. What strikes me here is the lengths to which they have gone to improve the user experience for their products by attacking performance in a big way. In addition to the work that they have done directly on their existing products (such as Search, Gmail, and Reader), they went far further and created a new browser and a new DNS product to speed up the performance of the web for all their users. In this case, where the performance gains are real and measurable, reality is also perception.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

What my mom taught me about search engine optimization

Actually, my mom taught me just about nothing about search engine optimization (SEO). What she did, though, was do a Google search on her son’s name. She discovered this blog was the number one response, and she told me about it on the weekend.

I checked myself, it having been some time since I had done a vanity search, and discovered that this blog is, indeed, the number one result for a search on ‘Mark Connolly’. It was a pleasing result at some level, though it did make me wonder how it happened; SEO is big business, and there is more than one Mark Connolly in the world who might be expected to show up higher in the results. Somehow, I stumbled into the top spot.

As it turns out, I may be number one on Google (for now, anyway), but this blog didn’t show up until the third page of Bing results for the same search. On the other hand, I turn up twice more on the first page of Google search results (my Twitter page and my Ignite talk video).

I am curious as to whether this result is peculiar to Canadian Google users, or is it the same elsewhere. Any input, blog readers?

And if you’re reading this, Mom, thanks for letting me know!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Oblique strategies provide a creative spark

Anyone who has a job that requires creativity — artists, engineers, scientists, musicians — has encountered blocks where the ideas just don’t seem to be there. While potentially frustrating, it’s not at all unusual and can be dealt with. There are many approaches to drawing out creative thinking, often with the goal of unblocking creative flow by guiding you down paths of thinking otherwise untaken.

A favourite tool of mine is Oblique Strategies, which started life as a set of cards created by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt in the 1970s (and which have been updated several times sine). The Oblique Strategies cards provide a way to get around creative roadblocks, each featuring an instruction on how to proceed. By selecting a card at random and following the guidance on the card, one can ‘trick’ the mind into exploring potentially novel paths in response to the card. My favourite has always been “Honour thy error as a hidden intention”, but they are all useful. Here are some random selections:
  • Breathe more deeply
  • Use an old idea
  • Destroy -nothing -the most important thing
  • Think of the radio
  • Only one element of each kind
  • Would anybody want it?
Now the ideas that emerge may not be good ones, but you’ll at least have explored a part of the solution space that you may have missed otherwise.

For those interested, a current version of the card deck is available at Eno Shop.

There was, in the past, an elegant Mac OS X dashboard widget that provided access to the text of the Oblique Strategies cards (all editions), as well as a similar iPhone app. It appears that both are no longer available via Apple, possibly for quite reasonable reasons relating to copyright. I still have my app, though, sitting next to Bloom, Trope, and Air on my iPhone, and I still draw on it regularly for inspiration. It would be lovely to see Oblique Strategies made available in these formats again.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Yet another demonstration that beer and user experience go well together

We had a great discussion (or, rather, series of discussions) at this month’s UX Group event at the Huether Hotel in Waterloo last night. We started off talking about iPad, which was certainly in the spirit of our announced NUI discussion, but soon wandered off down various interesting conversational side roads. From business models, to retail user experience, to music and movies in the digital age, and more, it was a terrific night. Thanks to everyone who came out and made the event so special. And here’s to a speedy recovery for co-organizer Bob Barlow-Busch, who was too ill to make it out. You missed a good night, Bob!

The current plan is to try to assemble a group post that represents our collective take on the evening. Check back at the UX Group blog for more on that.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Staying grounded with Boys Breakfast

One of the enduring traditions that I’ve been able to enjoy every other Thursday over the last decade here in Waterloo is a morning gathering known to its participants as Boys Breakfast. The attendance has varied dramatically in the years since the regular meetings at the long-departed Texas Bar-B-Q (a ghostly reminder of which appeared briefly late last summer while the space was being renovated; see the accompanying image), but some of the original founders are still there. While not exactly a secret society, it’s certainly been a well-kept secret, with new breakfasters joining via invitations to come on out and try it.

What’s the attraction? The diversity of breakfasters and the resulting wide-ranging conversations is certainly top of the list. This week’s gathering, for example, saw an architect, a writer, a historian, a venture capitalist, a librarian, a land developer, and a designer, amongst others, taking the conversations hither and yonder through the news and local topics of interest. Happily, conventional ‘networking’ isn’t on the menu!

The food has for some time been a top notch feature; Chris and Chef Willie regularly deliver wonderfully unique and delicious morning meals. Green eggs and ham (!) were  a special surprise, and I have particularly fond memories of the scotch eggs served up some time ago.

In the end, the regularity of the gatherings may be a big part of the appeal. Year in and year our, Boys Breakfast is there, providing a defiantly local communal experience. Guys, you know who you are, and I thank you all for creating and maintaining this Uptown Waterloo tradition.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Digital Media Boot Camp

On Monday and Tuesday this week I hosted a Digital Media Boot Camp at Canada 3.0 in Stratford, Ontario, on Canada’s digital media future. The goal was to come up with some concrete ideas around how to move forward on the vision of being able to do anything online in Canada by 2017, the country’s sesquicentennial year.

I was struck by a couple of things.

First was the diversity of people that showed up for what was essentially the “general public” stream of Canada 3.0. The range of experiences and backgrounds represented resulted in some great discussions.

The second was the recurring theme that emerged that access to the online world remains, in 2010, a real issue in Canada for a variety of reasons: economic disparity, urban/rural divide, fear, inexperience — all prevent full participation in Canada’s digital present. Ironically, technological barriers were emphasized at the conference, where both WiFi and mobile access were severely constrained.

(As an aside, there was also the irony, visible in the accompanying photo, of talking about a digital future using decidedly analogue markers and flip charts!)

There’s a lot of work to do to make a future a vision a reality.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Bigger than the World Cup!

2010 is an important year for me as a soccer fan, but not because the World Cup takes place on the continent of Africa for the first time (though that is, admittedly, big).

I’m a big fan of watching my sons play organized soccer here in Waterloo. The new season kicked off last week for all of them, and the big 2010 highlight for me is that my four-year-old has joined a team for the very first time this year! I’m pleased to note that, like his brothers before him, he managed to get uniform number six for his inaugural season; he’s a free man, and number one in my heart.

Between the three boys, this season I’ll be watching games five days a week at fields all over the city.

Organized soccer is available in my community thanks in large part to the work of many volunteers, and I’m grateful for that. My boys are too!

Monday, May 3, 2010

This boot camp needs you, no marching required

Next week is the Canada 3.0 conference in Stratford, Ontario. I mention it because I’ll be there on the afternoons of Monday May 10 and Tuesday May 11, facilitating/hosting DigitalMediaCamp from noon until 4:00pm. The great thing is that DigitalMediaCamp is free, courtesy of The Record. All you need to do is register for either Monday or Tuesday and then get yourself to Stratford.

What should you expect? As it says on the site, “the DigitalMediaCamp will allow participants to interact with others, experience new software and provide input to decision makers shaping the future of Digital Media in Canada.” DigitalMediaCamp registrants are also entitled to attend the morning keynote presentations that are part of Canada 3.0, and to explore the showcase booths and more.

Sounds like fun to me. Tell your friends, get thinking, and bring your ideas and an open mind to Stratford. Take the opportunity to work with others to help build a digital media vision for Canada.